Photos: Prostituted women fight for survival in war-torn South Sudan

By — November 10, 2016

Juba, South Sudan—In the Gumbo area of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, prostituted women are struggling to survive. Dozens of women who used to wait for clients are now going after them in markets and other busy areas of the city. The economic crisis as war continues has hit every part of the country. Over a few visits to a brothel in the slums of Gumbo, I witnessed many sick women, abuse, a lot of consumption of alcohol, and death.

Most of these women have a few commonalities: They are very young—from 16 to 25 years old, family members have abused them, and they are dreaming of a better life, one not in prostitution. They all started this work relatively recently, from three years to a few months ago, and after witnessing the conditions they work in, it’s not surprising that they don’t last long in the business. They earn between 30 cents and US$1.50 per client, who sometimes just beat them and don’t pay.

Some of the women live and work in a shack made from metal sheets. There is no bathroom or electricity. Others operate in lodges in which clients can find a bar and rooms for rent.

South Sudan is a country torn apart by war, which has caused the breakdown of traditional family structures. Neglect and abuse have put many of its citizens in desperate conditions, including the women and girls whose photos I took, some of which appear here. They live in desperation and hold on to the hope of a better life. For one, however, that hope ended in October. I found her dead when I went to see her for a second time.

One of the “lodges” used for prostitution in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. Although prostitution is illegal in the country, the number of prostituted women is on the rise. A local civil society organization estimates that the number of prostituted women increased from 3,500 in 2012 to 10,000 in 2014.

Angelina, 16, came from central Lakes State after her stepfather began abusing her. She went to Juba for her safety. When she arrived she stayed with an uncle, but after he died, his wife started mistreating her and she ended up at the brothels in Gumbo. Angelina wants go to back to her mother, she said, but has no money for transport.

Sarah, 25, was the mother of a 10-year-old. She was divorced and moved to Juba to find ways to support her family. Sarah ended up in Gumbo, where she was coerced, she said, into becoming a prostitute. She was very sick with complications from AIDS when I met her and was struggling to feed herself—she was so sick she could no longer work and depended on others to help her. She said she wanted to go back to her family in Rokon in the south of the country. I found Rachel dead during this assignment on October 17.

Theresa, 19, left Yambio, in the southwest of the country, after the death of her mother. Her father remarried, she said, and his new wife was mistreating her. She married in order to be able to leave the house. She said she wants to go back to Yambio and attend school.

After losing her mother and being abandoned by the father, Mary, 17, and her two brothers went to live on the streets. She ended up in the brothels of Gumbo, where she began working as a prostutite to sustain herself. She is sick and wants to be reunited with family members who are rejecting her.  “I want to join the school so I can read and write,” she told me, “and in the evenings I want to build up my capacity in computers and sewing.”

Beatrice, 17, was born in Khartoum as an ethnic Lotuko. After the independence of South Sudan she moved to Juba with her mother. But her mother left the city for a town in the south called Torit and Beatrice was taken to Gumbo by a friend. Once here, she started drinking alcohol and entered prostitution. “I’ve gotten nothing good here,” she said. “I only want to be treated well and taken to my mother in Torit so I can start a business in the market.”

The prostituted women charge clients who want to have unprotected sex more than others. Most of the clients don’t like condoms; they describe the experience as “not enjoyable.” South Sudan’s number of HIV infections rose from 130,000 to 180,000 between 2013 and 2015, according to UNAIDS

Nyanene, 17, was born in a town called Tongi. She has been in Juba for the past three years. She came here with her mother and two brothers after the death of an older brother who was supporting the family. When the family first came to Juba they stayed with a relative who wasn’t happy to host them and became abusive, she said. She left to look for money and to support her family. “If God gives me a good job, I will leave the brothels and go home to support my mother,” she said.

*All names have been changed to protect the women and girls privacy.

All photos by Bruno Bierrenbach Feder.